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One Year After Charlottesville I Still Can’t Understand Why Donald Trump Equated the Protesters with Neo-Nazis

It’s been almost a year since President Donald Trump proclaimed that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the August 15, 2017, white supremacy march in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Among those “very fine people” were torch-carrying neo-Nazis involved in a melee with those seeking removal of Confederate monuments. 

Mr. Trump’s words were absurd then, and no less so now. No American president has ever suggested anything redeeming about Nazi sympathizers, whether 75 years ago or today.

Yet with those words, “very fine people” on both sides, he insulted more than 75 years of unified American and world rejection of the awful legacy of the Nazis. His slowness to condemn these “very fine people” on the neo-Nazi side left heads spinning, especially those whose lives were defiled as prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

On May 2, 2018, I attended the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Wobbelin, Germany, concentration camp. It was liberated by the officers and soldiers of the renowned US 82nd Airborne Division. My father was there on that fateful day, when nearly 3,500 prisoners were liberated and set free from the Nazi curse. Another 1,000 dead bodies were stacked like firewood.

Acclaimed US General James M. Gavin, who led the 82nd, said that seeing the camp “was more than a human being could stand. Even after three years of war, it brought tears to my eyes.”

During the May ceremonies survivors and their family members told me, “Your father saved my life.” Whether my father, then a 19-year-old solider, saved any one person’s life would be impossible to establish. But the point is that these brave American soldiers, who fought across Western Europe, were instrumental in freeing the victims of Nazi tyranny. 

In the next breath, several asked, “What did President Trump mean when he said ‘there were good people on both sides’?” What should I have said? What on earth would any decent human being have said? I felt ashamed about the president’s words, for the disrespect they showed to my father’s legacy, and to the millions of Americans who stood up against Nazi crimes. 

Would President Trump have me, the son of a liberator, believe that today’s neo-Nazis, who are hell bent on continuing the legacy of the Nazis, are perfectly respectable people? I can only imagine the disgust my now deceased father would have evinced had he heard the president’s remarks.

The conversations with those directly affected were subsequently underscored by a conversation I had with German high school students who asked why President Trump seems not to care – or is even antagonistic – about the Transatlantic relationship, and more specifically the US-Germany relationship (a matter that received attention again in mid-July).  Again, what should I have said? I tried to reassure them that many Americans believe deeply in the ties that bind the Transatlantic countries. However, as long as the president dismisses our shared history, there are no good answers.

Today I ponder the tragedies of 20th century Europe, the world wars and the Cold War. I think about the peace and stability the European Union has brought to the continent. I find myself thinking about the faces I saw, the eyes of those who want to believe that America is still a good county, a trusted ally, and a close friend.  

Several years ago, Rabbi Laszlo Berkowitz, who as a youngster was liberated at the Wobbelin camp, said this about the soldiers of the 82nd: “God sent us angels from the sky,” referring to the airborne division. “We can never thank them enough.  We can never, never repay them.  We can never praise them enough. Their sacrifices turned back the age of enslavement.” 

No, Mr. President. There were not good people on both sides. I invite you to join me in Wobbelin on May 2, 2019, where I will challenge you to say again what you so ignorantly remarked only one year ago.